A Call to Protestants Everywhere to Take “Marriage” Back from the State
Immediate clarification is needed to prevent and ward off objections from people who don’t read anything but the title of this blog essay!
By “Protestants” I mean specifically those denominations and churches that are orthodox doctrinally but not Catholic (with a capital “C”) or Eastern Orthodox. I also mean those mostly non-fundamentalist but relatively conservative, biblically-committed Protestant denominations and churches that have slipped into the habit and custom of accepting the declarations about specific marriages by the state (legislatures and courts) as true and valid for their own members.
I have lived long enough now to remember when most relatively conservative, biblically-committed Protestant churches did not automatically accept all specific marriages and divorces as valid for them—in terms of membership and especially leadership. In fact, this was one of the “litmus tests” we evangelical or conservative Protestants used to identify “liberal, mainline Protestant” denominations and churches. Among other things, they were those that included at every level of membership and leadership people divorced and remarried—without regard to the reasons for the divorce.
To be sure, many of us (again, I am referring to relatively conservative, biblically-committed, Protestants) were far, far too harsh toward divorced people. But that was not always the case—in every case. We were very conservative and normally looked down on divorced people and especially those who remarried. I remember one case, however, from my own ultra-conservative church and denomination.
The couple were members of our congregation. My father was its pastor. I remember being in this couple’s home as a child. They were close friends of our family. At some point (I don’t remember all the details) the wife of the couple seemed to disappear from our home and church; she was no longer “there” in terms of being with her husband. I learned later (as a young adult when I still knew the husband well) that his wife had been unfaithful to the husband and had gone insane (then uncontrolled psychosis). (To forestall certain kinds of responses I will say that I knew this husband well over many years and he was always a very mild and kind man and there was never any hint of abuse on his part.)
The divorce that resulted was not held against him—either within our church or our denomination. The circumstances were known; he was forgiven (if that’s even the right term) and went on to become a pastor in our denomination—as a divorced and single man.
To continue the case study…. After some years of being an ordained minister in our very conservative denomination the man remarried. The denomination then had an iron clad rule against remarriage after divorce by credentialed ministers. With great reluctance the denomination stripped him his ministerial standing upon his remarriage. My uncle was president of our denomination and I know that both he and my father and many other ministers were shocked and grieved about that rule being applied in that man’s case. But the rule had to be kept and exercised. The man’s church left the denomination and kept him and his new wife as their pastors. My father and uncle and many others in our denomination kept up friendly relations with him. Eventually, partly because of this case, the denomination changed its rule to allowing divorced and remarried ministers to keep their ministerial standing if the divorce was “justified biblically.” It was decided at a denomination convention where I was present that “justified biblically” meant “in cases of unfaithfulness” (adultery).
My point is that most relatively conservative, biblically committed, Protestant denominations and churches did not take divorce and especially remarriage lightly. We (mostly) reserved the right to decide among ourselves whether a judge’s declaration of divorce and whether a government’s issuance of a marriage license constituted true divorce (end of a marriage) or true marriage (in God’s sight) for us.
Yes, there was unevenness, some randomness, some harshness in applying this attitude toward marriage, divorce and remarriage. But here I want to focus on a principle and not how it is worked out in practice.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
It seems to me that over the years conservative, biblically-committed Protestants (I’m avoiding the word “evangelical” for now because of the baggage it carries in the current political scene in America) have by and large granted the secular state (courts, local councils, legislators, etc.) the right and power to decide even for us what constitutes marriage and what constitutes divorce. As I look back over my years of involvement in this American subculture it seems to me this gradually but rather quickly became a default practice among non-fundamentalist Protestants, including those I am calling relatively conservative and biblically-committed, sometime in the 1970s and 1980s.
I well remember a rather startling conversation I had with two older colleagues when I taught at an evangelical liberal arts college and seminary. This was in the early 1990s. The three of us had traveled together to a distant city (within the U.S.) to help start up a new undergraduate program of our college at our seminary’s extension center there. Over dinner one evening our conversation focused on the controversy about gay rights and especially gay marriage—including within “our kind” of Protestant churches. My two colleagues informed me in no uncertain terms that, in their opinions, gay marriage would eventually be embraced among us. I said I didn’t believe that. I asked them what made them predict that. They both agreed that it was inevitable because “our kind of churches” (relatively conservative, biblically-committed Protestant) had by and large granted to the states the right to decide for us about divorce. Our churches that only a few years before had not automatically accepted divorce decrees as valid for us had come to do just that. They argued that that change set the stage for eventual acceptance by us of gay marriage as valid.
That conversation is really what made me first begin to think about the change they described. There was no doubt it had happened or was in the process of happening—even among and within quite conservative and very biblically-committed Protestant churches. Divorce and even remarriage seemed to have slipped out consideration and concern in terms of membership and often even leadership (congregationally and denominationally). As the years progressed then and since then I have noticed that many relatively conservative, biblically-committed Protestant churches have many divorced and remarried people within them as full members and teachers and leaders (deacons, elders), and sometimes even as pastors.
What I thought was the case was this: That decisions about divorce and remarriage were being made “behind the scenes” with questions being asked about the reasons for the divorces. But then I gradually realized that was probably not the case. I served on membership committees, executive councils, even pastoral staffs. I queried many pastors and denominational leaders about this and began to get puzzled looks—as if this was not at all an issue worth thinking about. If a court decided to issue a divorce decree, then the marriage was over and the formerly married people were free to marry again—other people. This was not stated as such (among relatively conservative, biblically-committed churches), but it seemed to me to have become the norm among “us.”
Insofar as this is true, then I have come to conclude that “we” did, as my colleagues argued, set ourselves up for what we are now experiencing—tremendous pressure especially from outside our own denominations and churches (and related institutions) to accept gay marriage. I have noticed that many people who were keeping their opinions about gay marriage either formally unsettled or secret suddenly openly embraced gay marriage with the Supreme Court decision “Obergefell v. Hodges” (2015). Suddenly, many what I would consider relatively conservative, biblically committed Protestant denominations and churches were caught up in “conversations” about this matter (viz., whether to allow gays to marry in the church and whether to recognize gay marriage as valid for them). That conversation has become the single most controversial one right now, among American relatively conservative, biblically-committed denominations and churches (and the institutions related to them).
Here my purpose is not to stake out any position about divorce and remarriage or gay marriage; my only purpose here is to wonder why relatively conservative, biblically-committed Protestant churches have by and large granted to the state (governments, courts) the right to decide for us who is and who is not married. It seems to me we have made the path toward accepting gay marriage among ourselves straight. Whenever I talk to American Protestant Christians (again, I’m talking about non-fundamentalist, relatively conservative, biblically-committed ones) about the “gay marriage debate” (within and among them) I simply ask what their denomination or church thinks about divorce and remarriage. Almost always eyebrows rise and people ask me “What’s that got to do with this?” I think it should be quite obvious what that’s got to do with this (that they are struggling with).
I am already hearing about immigrant families in Europe (not yet in the US but we tend to follow what happens in Europe eventually) that have “multiple marriage”—and are Christians and want to be embraced fully as members in Christian churches (some of them as I am describing—non-fundamentalist, relatively conservative, biblically committed). Of course, in all cases I have heard about the husband is legally married to only one wife under the laws of the state where they have settled. So far as I know no Westernized country legally permits multiple marriage (or what is popularly known as polygamy). However, there is a simple way around that—as fundamentalist Mormons have discovered. “On paper,” so far as government is concerned, the family can live together and function together as polygamous while the husband is officially married, in the eyes of the state, the government, to one only.
So far all Christian churches I know of in the “West” have not embraced polygamy of any kind. But how long will it be before they do? The issue will come about (as already in Europe) with immigrant, polygamous Christian families. If states, governments, eventually decide that multiple marriage, polygamy, is legal, will we have ground to stand on in rejecting that—for us?
The only way I can see out of this morass about marriage and divorce, etc., is for Protestant Christian churches to adopt for themselves the same approach taken by the Roman Catholic Church. The RCC does not accept any government’s or court’s laws or decrees about marriage as automatically valid for them—within their own ecclesiastical contexts. I’m not suggesting there are no abuses involved in that; I’m simply describing a principle that probably must be adopted and worked out among relatively conservative, biblically-committed Protestants insofar as they do not accept and embrace for themselves, within their own ecclesiastical contexts, whatever laws and courts say and do about marriage.
Well, this has gone on long enough. Please know that these are only my musings; I have no authority to make anything happen. I am writing here only as a theologian and ethicist working within the wide context of relatively conservative, biblically-committed Protestantism. My goal is only to get this conversation going. To perhaps step back and away from the immediate issue that is tearing some of our churches apart and ask us all to consider what is our basic attitude toward government and marriage and divorce. To be very, very specific, do we need to reverse history and undo our by and large unconscious, “default,” practice of letting laws and courts decide for us who is and who is not married—within our own ecclesiastical contexts? If not, then I predict that my two colleagues were right. I’m not making a value judgment—except about ecclesiology and how it should not be worked out unconsciously, by drift and default, through unexamined accommodation to culture.
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